Howard French, a journalist, coined the term “Ooga Booga” journalism to refer to the ways that the mainstream media covers crises on the continent of Africa. This type of journalism is a reiteration of the colonial discourse that justifies treating Africans as sub-human. It is a pernicious form of othering. As Laura Seay and Kim Yi Dionne write in The Washington Post, in their article, The long and ugly tradition of treating Africa as a dirty, diseased place, “Othering happens when an in-group (in this case, white northern Europeans) treat other groups of people (the out-group, here, Africans and other people of color) as though there is something wrong with them by identifying perceived “flaws” in the out-group’s appearance, practice or norms.”
Charing Ball, a journalist, points to a recent article run by the website Jezebel entitled, From Miasma to Ebola: The History of Racist Moral Panic Over Disease, which talks about how disease – and in particular the fear of disease – was used to other people and colonize lands in both Africa and India. In particular, the piece notes, “If the history of modernity can, as Dominique Laporte suggests in his genealogical meditation History of Shit, be written as a triumph of cleanliness over bodily refuse, then so too could the European colonization of Africa and India. The sanitary crusade of the nineteenth century is central to the violent project of empire. Western medicine, with its emphasis on personal hygiene, functioned (and in some arenas still functions) as colonialism's benevolent cover—an acknowledgment that, while empire was about profit at all costs, that it could also conceal this motive slightly by concerning itself with bettering the health of debased bodies.”
Time after time in the coverage of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, we read descriptions and see imagery of Black bodies surrounded by the emblems of disregard, uncleanliness, contamination, distress, unkempt. These bodies are the background, the accessories to the white or lighter skinned journalist or health worker whose image or voice is the protagonist of the story. As Ball notes, “I definitely feel like black bodies, and what is happening to them, are largely missing in mainstream outlets. I mean, we see the physical bodies laying in hospital beds, on floors and in the dirt on television and in other media outlets. We don't really get to talk to them. Or to know there names. Mostly we get Western narration of very shallow stories about Ebola...”
Dr. James Hudson and Dr. Jemima Pierre published in the Black Agenda Report, an article entitled, Ebola, Cholera: The Epidemiology of Anti-Blackness and the “White Savior Industrial Complex”- Black Lives Don’t Matter, in which they say, “The western, white, response to the cholera and Ebola epidemics ultimately teaches us that global white supremacy thrives on Black suffering, denigration, and death. Because, next to the stories of Black disease as endemic and linked to uncivilized and untamed Black cultural practices – as well as the way white media revels in publishing pictures of dead Blacks – we get the construction of the “brave” and “heroic” white saviors who risk their lives for the Blacks and non-whites: the “white savior industrial complex” at its best.”
On Black Lives Matter
The police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri set off a months long national campaign for the dignity of Black life in the wake of Black death. But if Black lives matter, who do they matter to? And what is their value? And in what ways has the media representation of Black lives in the death of Michael Brown and the hundreds of other Black people whose lives have been cut short by police and other security forces shootings in the past year, been replicated by the media representation of Black bodies and lives who are living in the midst of the Ebola crisis?
“The western, white, response to the cholera and Ebola epidemics ultimately teaches us that global white supremacy thrives on Black suffering, denigration, and death. Because, next to the stories of Black disease as endemic and linked to uncivilized and untamed Black cultural practices – as well as the way white media revels in publishing pictures of dead Blacks – we get the construction of the “brave” and “heroic” white saviors who risk their lives for the Blacks and non-whites: the “white savior industrial complex” at its best.”
Ball, who reported on the Ferguson protests as a journalist compares how the authorities and media have attempted to physically and rhetorically contain Black bodies in Ferguson and the Ebola virus, "There is certainly correlations there to how we quarantine. I was there (in Ferguson). And I saw first hand how protest was relegated to certain safe spaces. The same with how it is covered in the media. They came for the protest but failed miserably in humanizing the issue of police brutality beyond the singular killing of Mike Brown. In essence the protest and the largely issue of police brutality, misconduct and killings are treated as disease to be contained and eradicated as opposed to the actual disease itself. And that is what is largely missing in this excitement: First, how is police brutality affecting the black community specifically and how can we help? Also how is Ebola affecting people and how can we help?”
Aaminah Shakur, a writer and community organizer, points out how in both cases of Black people being hunted by security forces in the U.S. or West Africans living in the midst of an Ebola outbreak, the media continuously puts forth this image of Black people who lack active agency and a comprehensible voice, of people who can act and be understood, in order to determine for themselves what is the best way forward. “There is a connection to be made between our portrayals of Black people in the U.S. and Africans. While the methods of portrayal differ, one including more pity than the other, both are ultimately about dehumanizing real people and stripping them of their own agency and voice to talk about their lives or put forward solutions to their issues and needs. These portrayals are exported in such a way as to push the colonialist stereotypes of both groups in such a way that Black people in the U.S. and Africans both look down on each other. If both communities were to unite under the common purpose of addressing worldwide anti-Blackness, it would be frightfully dangerous to the status quo. As it is, some people benefit from the ongoing perpetuation of these images and stereotypes,” she said.
On Black Women
The majority of people in West Africa who have contracted Ebola are women. This is in large part because women perform most of the emotional and caretaking labor in the community and thus it is women who will spend the most amount of the time with those already affected by the disease. The ways that we, in the media, portray women who are on the front lines of organizing their community to survive the outbreak ought to be important, but the ways that the strains of anti-black racism, sexism, colonialism, classism intersect means that Black West African women's labor in this crisis moment are often made invisible, while their bodies become hosts having to carry the burden of white supremacist, misogynoir tropese.
Shakur talks about the ways that West African women's bodies have been used in the media to be portrayed as passive vehicles, without agency in the face of their own health. As symbols of the contagion of Ebola. She says about a video produced by teleSUR on the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, “Looking at the women in the video, I … had questions about their consent to be in the video and beamed around the world, or how much of their personal health information was being broadcast. Furthermore, the fact that none of the women were interviewed and allowed to speak for themselves was concerning. Images of women in compromising positions, such as while sitting on their clinic cots, often topless, seemed jarring and to be asserting the continued "not really human" narrative, as if these women do not deserve to be shown with dignity. They are merely props and background ornament to the story, a story that is presented as little changed over the years, rather than being treated as actual people who may have a story to tell about their own lives and health concerns.”
While in a lot of the media coverage of the Ebola, West African women are not shown to be actively fighting Ebola, Moya Bailey, points out that even when Black women are shown to be able to take care of themselves, their loved ones, their communities, these women's labor are still not valued as highly as other, non-Black people's labor. “I mostly (in the media) see our absence as well as a general lack of concern about Black women's well being. Despite the heroics of Fatu Kekula she's been reduced to an anomaly. Kekula was able to care for three family members that survived, in addition to not contracting the virus herself. She has some important insights to offer about how to save people using generic household items. Her story is remarkable but not one that is being used to establish best practices or instruction for healthcare providers. Despite being at a U.S. hospital and receiving experimental treatment, Thomas E. Duncan, still died. I emphasize Duncan's death to highlight the incredible nature of what Kekula accomplished. She should be much more celebrated than she is. She is most often referred to as a woman; most headlines do not mark her as African, Liberian specifically. I find it so interesting that her race is erased in the story of heroism.”
“Amber Vinson's survival is critical in that it shows that a Black person, a Black woman, can survive Ebola when under the care of U.S. doctors. I've seen Amber Vinson, most often referred to as the “second Dallas nurse” in headlines and there are far fewer images of her or stories tracking her recovery as compared to Nina Pham. I think what is most disheartening in all of this is the clear ways that humanity is valued differently because of where you are born and what you look like …. How might this conversation be different if the United States saw the inhumanity of Black Africans dying by the thousands as a result of this outbreak?”
The Visual Imagery of Anti-Blackness
In the social imagination of white supremacist cultures, such as in the U.S. and Europe, Blackness stands as a visual marker of difference, of other, of threat. In visual communication, Blackness delineates the edges of white “civilized” life, the difference between the fully human and the sub-human or even anti-human. And in media that are from these white cultures or are controlled by these cultures, we often find Black bodies and Black cultures being used as a way to reiterate the century long history of anti-Blackness that white imperial cultures have used as justification for colonization, slavery, exploitation of African peoples.
Charing Ball describes, in detail, a recent report from VICE, ostensibly on the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, but in which the all too common tropes of associating Black bodies with monkeys and bestial violence.
“Although the CDC (U.S. Center for Disease Control) has yet to find the official source of the outbreak, this has not stopped many mainstream news outlets for drawing erroneous and unconfirmed connections between the virus and certain cultural aspects of people in West Africa … For example, VICE television recently ran a news report, which alleged to be an on-location investigation in Ebola in Liberia, however a big portion of the report focused on the underground “bush meat (which is largely wild game of any variety)” trade in rather remote areas of the country. And although “bush meat is a generate term for wild animals in the jungle (including all types of gophers, snakes, antelopes), there was particular fascination with monkey meat...”
“Not only are we treated to an open market, where the camera pans over all the animal parts including monkey … At one point of the video, we are treated to two Liberian men fighting over a monkey leg, which they eventually share and consume on camera. Of course, this fascination with the monkey is because that animal is not conducive to the dietary habits of most in the West … And while some Ebola outbreaks throughout history have been linked to the handling (not consuming) of “bush meat” what is left out of the report is how rare disease has always come from the handling and consuming of meat in general – from cows, to pigs, to fowl to deer to other animals that people consume.”
This is what “ooga booga” journalism looks like. As Ball says about the Western media's showing us Black life and Black experience, in the midst of West African peoples fighting to stop Ebola from ravaging their communities, “Again, we are never introduced or even get to meet any of the infected, but we do get to prod, poke and pick apart what are largely cultural differences. The report … is really just about marginalizing people as strange, savages … In a larger sense Ebola become an excuse to condemn a culture it deems primitive. As black bodies are overshadowed by the disease, it becomes the disease and only the disease. And with any disease, it has to be contained and quarantined if not eradicated.”
In its series, The Other Side of Ebola, teleSUR counters mainstream media sensationalism with articles that look at the real Ebola stories: prevention, solidarity, health care struggles, the effects of neoliberalism in Africa, racism, and more.